Childhood is marked by a series of expansions in awareness, as we become conscious of the enlarging spheres of family, community, city, country, planet, and come to understand our place in each of these. For me comprehension has always stalled rather at what one presumes is the final of these spheres, the universe, it’s vast scale and incomprehensible forces often causing a mental paralysis. How do you begin to comprehend the vast distances and powerful forces at work.
Visions of the Universe, an exhibition of photographs of these almost incomprehensible phenomena, gets you somewhere close to appreciating the scale and beauty, complexity and emptiness of space. It follows a rough chronology of our exploration of the stars, starting with our nearest and biggest neighbours, the Sun, the Moon, and Mars, and then progressing on to the more enigmatic, distant planets like Venus, Saturn and Neptune. The final section covers the most distant bodies of all, the vast super-structures of galaxies and nebulae.
Despite the basically functional nature of many of the photographs on show they are deeply beautiful, even those that are of seemingly quite inconsequential things. A topographic map of mars for example, or a composite image of the moon’s surface with its countless craters, these are surprisingly moving things to look at. It caused me to wonder if seeing these planets stirs something primordial in us, that even transmogrified by lenses and blown up as huge prints they remind some part of us of the stars in the sky that our ancestors once relied on for navigation, seasons, and their mythologies.
The one thing that did disappoint me a little was the quality of the prints. With the exception of some lovely vintage prints by pioneers like Herschel, and a handful of slightly tedious art prints by Wolfgang Tillmans (the only big name artist on show), most of the prints were a bit underwhelming. Most seemed to have been printed on hardboard and batoned to the wall, which felt a tad amateurish. Such is the beauty of these photographs that properly printed they would have been really astounding. That said there were also some light box mounted prints that worked very well, and the whole show would have looked absolutely stunning displayed like this.
Alongside conventional photographic prints there were some other nice displays, including projected images of the planets showing various events in action. The transit of one planet across another, the massive flares of solar energy bursting out of the sun, and a nice revolving projection of the earth at night with it’s urban centres lit up. The intention of the show is obviously to spread its appeal widely, from astro-photography buffs to space obsessed children, and so while I might complain about things like the print quality this maybe just shows that I’ve been spending too much time looking at expensive prints in art galleries lately.
‘The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent’ wrote the Astrophysicist Carl Sagan. Viewing these images it’s not hard to see how true these words are. Amidst the luminous beauty and unimaginable vastness of even a single galaxy, planet Earth and it’s inhabitants start to look increasingly miniscule, but also in a strange way increasingly precious. Visions of the Universe is on at the Maritime Museum until 15th September 2013.